Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man opens with a Hebrew fable set in a 19th-century Polish shtetl — one involving a dybbuk, no less — before seguing to Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" blasting out of a 13-year-old boy's earplugs during a bar mitzvah class. Believe me, that seemingly discordant juxtaposition isn't as berserk as it sounds.
In fact, the fable and song turn out to be the Coens' guiding motifs here. Set in a blandly pastoral midwestern suburb in 1967, the film is reportedly the Coens' most personal work. Larry Gopnick (New York stage veteran Michael Stuhlbarg in a remarkable performance), the film's Job-like physics-professor protagonist, was modeled after their college-professor dad, and the movie's near-fetishistic details of coming-of-age in the mid-'60s were taken directly from their own Minnesota adolescence.
When Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces out of the blue that she wants a divorce so she can marry unctuous family "friend" Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his life quickly spirals out of control. Reduced to living in a no-tell motel with his deadbeat brother (Richard Kind), Larry is forced to take shit from every direction. His department head wants to deny him tenure, a South Korean student (David Kang) tries blackmailing him to get his grade changed, a Columbia Record Club phone rep harasses him at work, his rabbi repeatedly blows him off and his soon-to-be-bar-mitzvah son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a burgeoning pothead who complains that "F Troop is fuzzy" on the family TV. What's a self-professed "serious man" like Larry supposed to do?
Perfectly pitched for maximum satirical effect and without an ounce of fat, the film hits every mark and then some. The Coens' famously deadpan, stubbornly misanthropic worldview is alive and well, though Coen-come-lately fans who didn't discover the brothers until No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading are likely to be puzzled, even turned off. (They're liable to dismiss A Serious Man as a long, elaborate, even mean-spirited Jewish joke.) But for Coen completists who adore Barton Fink, think The Hudsucker Proxy was criminally underrated and host bi-annual Big Lebowski viewing parties (preferably at a neighborhood bowling alley), A Serious Man is almost indecently pleasurable.
So full of classic moments (including the funniest bar mitzvah on record) that it's impossible to catalog them after just one viewing, the movie has more big laughs than any film released so far this year. It's also probably too "niche" (read: Jewish) to ever go beyond the art-house ghetto where such previous Coen treasures as Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There and Miller's Crossing were consigned before finding eventual — and richly deserved — cult followings on DVD. To quote a well-lubricated guest at Danny's comically surreal bar mitzvah party, "Mazeltov, it's wonderful."